Venezia: The importance of improv

Picture this:

You’re walking through Venice. It’s sweltering hot outside, as you can see from the sweat stains on everyone’s back (I’m talking at least 95 degrees plus humidity). And by everyone, I mean all the tourists, since Venice is crawling with them. You wander through the narrow alleys of the city, gawking at the notorious mask shops and resisting the urge to dip your feet in the murky, green canal water (the canals also serve as the sewage, you know).

Suddenly, an American girl in a sundress and sandals dashes past you, almost clipping your shoulder. She’s followed swiftly by two other Americans, and the trio seems to be heading towards the bus station. Clearly, they’re late for something.

Well, here it is: I’m the American girl in a sundress. The other two are my gracious hosts while in Venice, Joser and Brittany.

You see, when Joser checked his watch for the time, we realized that the bus station was about a twenty minute walk away. And at that point, we had ten minutes before the bus left. I asked if anyone was opposed to running, and when there were no complaints, off we went. Which brings us to this moment in time, in which we are sprinting through the city.

We arrive at the car with a little less than a minute to spare. Brittany throws the car into gear like a pro while I frantically grab my belongings that are strewn across the backseat and throw them into my purse. Two minutes later, we’re driving through the bus station. I think I see the bus parked in front, but with this particular station, we have to circle around the building before finding a place to stop. Joser offers to grab my backpack from the trunk so I can run to the bus. The car comes to a halt as I grab my purse and throw open the back door, and I bound through the station like a frantic American tourist who’s about to miss her bus. But when I get the the curb, the bus is nowhere in sight.

Joser appears a few seconds later with my backpack in tow. “Did you miss it?”

Yup. Yup, I did.

*Rewind to two days prior*

When I first arrive in Venice, Joser and I spend a few minutes coordinating a meeting place over the phone (“Do you see a yellow crane?” “Maybe… I’m next to this elevated train track that looks like it has teeth.” “Uh…what?”). Eventually, I find the yellow crane and, standing nearby, Joser. “Would you like me to carry your backpack?” he offers. “No thanks,” I decline, “it’s hiding the sweat stains.” He nods understandingly. It’s two in the afternoon and the sun is beating down on us relentlessly.

In spite of the temperature and the crowds, we meander along the streets of Venice for the next few hours.

Afterwards, we relocate his car and drive an hour to their home in Caneva, where Brittany is waiting for us. Brittany and Joser are actually my fiance’s friends from back home, and today is the first time I’m meeting either of them. We turn on a movie as the three of us chow down on the pizza and gelato that Joser and I picked up on our way back.

The next day, Joser whips up a scrumptious breakfast of potatoes and eggs while we discuss what to do. We decide to visit the Grotte di Pradis, a series of caves about an hour and a half away. Upon arrival, we manage to slip through the exit (totally an accident.. all of the “Do Not Enter” signs are in Italian), but we find that the staircase to the caves is guarded by the ticket man. We spend the next few hours scouting out the caves, including a cave that they sometimes hold Catholic Mass in.

On the way home, we stop at a nearby church with a panoramic view. Then we spot a cool statue in the middle of a rotary (or round-about or whatever you call it), so naturally we park the car on the side of the road and take pictures of it.

Brittany turns to me, “So, how are you doing on energy?”

“Great, why?”

“We have another place to show you.”

It’s called “The Hole” at Gorgazzo. The pool of water is only a short walk from the road and has the bluest water I have ever seen in my life. The picture isn’t lying. But that’s not even the best part. Joser points to a sign nearby–the pool is actually an entrance to a cave that is at least 212 meters (695 feet) deep. I say “at least” because no one’s ever reached the bottom… they stopped letting cave divers go down after two divers died from running out of oxygen.

We finish the day with a stroll in the nearby woods. Joser and Brittany discovered this trail after they arrived here and wanted to share it with me. And now I’m sharing it with you.

The next morning, the three of us decide to wander the alleys of Venice once more before I leave.

Which is when we wandered a little farther than we thought.

Which brings us to now, where I’m staring down an empty bus stop, convinced that if I stare harder, the bus will magically appear.

EPILOGUE (Warning: after this point, there are no pictures. But it’s a fun story anyway.)

After discussing the available options, we decide that I’ll stay the night with Joser and Brittany, and the following day, catch a train to Venice in time to get another bus going home. After buying all of those tickets, of course.

The train isn’t that complicated. “You can buy your ticket at the station. They take credit cards,” Brittany tells me.

The bus is slightly more so. The website won’t let me purchase a ticket online, but the lady on the phone reassures me that the Venice office has a credit card machine. (Here’s the thing about Italy: no one uses credit cards. Ever.)

The next day, Joser gets ready to drive me to the train station since Brittany is already at work. The train station is 15 minutes away, but just to be safe, we give ourselves 25 minutes to get there. Right on schedule, we lock up the house and amble out to the car. Suddenly, Joser stops mid-sentence, “Did I really just lock my keys in the house?” I stop fidgeting with the door handle and look up. He’s being serious.

A few minutes later, Joser is shimmying up a tree to climb onto the roof, since the second-story windows are open. A branch manages to go up his nose in the process (“My nose still hurts,” he tells me later). Nose injury or not, he stealthily climbs across the loose tiles on the roof and makes it to one of the bedroom windows. Soon we’re driving down the road with 15 minutes before the train leaves.

We get to the train station and I purchase a ticket as the train comes to a halt on the track. Excellent.

And for my next trick, purchasing a bus ticket. The only problem with that is that the station in Venice doesn’t have a credit card machine and the nearest one is in Bologna, 3 hours away. Awesome. The ticket man, however, is extremely obliging and talks to the bus driver about letting me buy my ticket when we stop in Bologna. The bus driver taps his watch impatiently as the ticket man talks to his contact in Bologna. My eyes shift uncomfortably to the floor as I wag my finger at myself in my mind. (“You are totally being that annoying American tourist who gives other American tourists a bad rep,” I scold myself.) Ten minutes and a phone call later, we strike an agreement and the bus driver lets me onto the bus.

Once in Bologna, I scurry to the agency where the ticket is waiting for me to purchase it. The wait is so long that the bus driver actually comes to check on me. Finally, it’s my turn. “Twenty-five euro,” the ticket man says as he takes my card. “But the ticket was supposed to be forty euro,” I tell him, determined to redeem myself to these people through my honesty. “Don’t worry about it. Twenty-five euro.” Well, if he insists. That night, I pull into the bus station and breathe a sigh of relief as I slide into the front seat of the car.

Here’s to adventure.


The new stamps in my passport

“You’re actually flying out of Terminal C.”

Which would be wonderful, except for the fact that I’m talking to a Lufthansa agent in Terminal E. “The flight is being outfitted by United. It says so there,” she tells me as she points to a highlighted note on my itinerary. Oh. Maybe I should try reading the whole thing sometime. But I guess this is why I arrived at the Logan Airport two hours early.

Guided by her directions and an occasional sign, I troop down the escalator, past Dunkies, across the taxi lane, and through a rather sketchy hallway until I arrive in Terminal C. A couple uneventful hours later, I find myself on the plane bound for Washington DC. The man sitting next to me has little sense of personal space and reeks of alcohol, but I use my headphones to drown out his life story that he’s sharing with the passenger on his other side and I watch the cities below me flicker to life. My mind focuses on the journey that is about to begin.

The plan is this: a short layover in DC followed by a six hour flight to London, where I’ll stay for a couple of days with my mother’s friend. Then I’ll fly out of London, have a brief layover in Munich, and finally arrive Italy, where I’ll be living for the next few months as an English tutor/au pair.

When I exit the plane, I see that the flight to London is already boarding. Luckily for me, it’s only two gates away. After takeoff, the flight attendants serve us dinner, giving us the option between pasta and chicken. I opt for the pasta. The meal also includes a roll, salad, and some cookies—the perfect amount of dinner to send me into a food coma for the next three hours. I wake up as the flight attendants pull the breakfast cart down the aisle. The menu includes a croissant, a bowl of fruit (Mom, be proud…I ate the whole thing), and juice. I feel slightly disoriented when we land in London, seeing as my internal clock is practically yelling at me to find a bed so I can get some decent sleep.

Izi, my mom’s friend, meets me after I get my luggage. We talk about all sorts of things as we drive to her house, and the whole time, I’m staring at the oncoming traffic that’s driving on what I consider to be the wrong side of the road. Once we get home, Izi introduces me to Don, her husband, and then gives me a little snack before I head up to my room for a quick nap.

Seven hours later, I stumble down the stairs.

“I’m alive,” I announce, although it doesn’t sound very convincing.

“Ahh, look!” Izi announces to Don. “Sleeping Beauty’s awake at last!”

We decide on fish and chips for dinner, and Don leaves to go pick it up from the store. I amble around the house, becoming more accustomed with my surroundings. If there was one word I had to choose to describe London, it would be “quaint.” The people are delightful, the buildings are cozy, and, as I discover when Don returns with dinner, the portions of fish and chips are huge. We turn on an episode of Castle as we sit at the table and begin to feast. There’s a side of mashed peas that comes with the food and it’s roughly the same consistency as refried beans. I’m not sure what to think of it as I scoop some onto my plate, but I open my mind and my mouth and… it turns out to be pretty good. I go back for seconds.

During dinner, we begin talking about American politics. I come to the conclusion that I need to educate myself more on the subject—Don knows more about my country’s government than I do. After we talk for a couple of hours, I head upstairs for bed, and to my surprise (although it might not be a surprise to anyone else), I pass out within a few minutes, despite the seven hours I logged in earlier.

The next day consists of sight-seeing with Izi. The two of us pile into her car and we check out Windsor Castle and the Thames (pronounced “tems”) River in the morning. We also drive through Windsor Great Park and see about 40 of the royal deer sitting together on the grass by the road. In the afternoon, we drive by Buckingham Palace and through downtown London. On a whim, Izi asks if I’m interested in trying to ride on the Eye. Eagerly, I agree. We find parking in a nearby lot and head to the ticket station. We make it into the capsule and we see that we are the second to last group before they close for the evening. The view is incredible, and we are fortunate enough to see the sunset as we get to the top of the ride. We can see everything from up there—Waterloo Station, Big Ben, the House of Parliament, a new glass building called the Shard, and much more. It’s truly breathtaking. The city lights turn on during our descent, and from our lofty perch above London, we watch the sky become darker and the city glow brighter.

For your Gee Whiz collection: Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower, not the clock.

For your Gee Whiz collection: Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower, not the clock.

A backward glimpse after the ride

A backward glimpse after the ride

The following morning, Izi takes me back to the airport. A couple of hours later, I’m strolling through the airport in Munich. Everything is in German—the advertisements, the announcements, the signs—and while I can’t understand any of it, I feel very at peace. No, that’s not quite right…I’m in awe. It’s both humbling and mystifying  to be in a foreign and unfamiliar place.

On the ride to Ancona, I sit next to an old Italian man who acts like he has never flown on an airplane before. The announcements are first in Italian, then in German, then in English. Once we are airborne, I look out the window and see what I think are the Alps, but I’m not positive. I should ask the man sitting next to me. Does he even speak English? No clue. But you know what, I have two new stamps in my passport and I feel like I can handle anything right now.

Scusi,” I tap the shoulder of the old man. He turns to me. “Are those the Alps?”

Mi dispiace, non capisco.” Sorry, I don’t understand.

I point, “Gli Apli?” The Alps?

Oh, sì (some more Italian I can’t understand).

Sì, sì. Grazie.

He smiles. “Prego.” You’re welcome.

And that was it. My first conversation in Italian. Not the most glorious conversation ever, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

Vito, the father of the host family I’m staying with, picks me up from the airport. He knows a lot of English, so he tells me about Italy and about his family as we drive home. Arianna, Vito’s wife, greets us as we pull into the driveway and gives me a huge hug. I’m already feeling at home here. Bianca, their two-old daughter, is sleeping still, so I’ll meet her after I put my things in my apartment. We hike up four flights of stairs to the apartment where I’ll be living for the next few months and they  tell me that dinner is in an hour, but I can come later if I need to sleep. They leave me to unpack and I take a deep breath as I look around the apartment—my apartment—for the first time.

My bedroom

My bedroom

The living room and dining area. There's also a small kitchen in the corner

The living room and dining area. There’s also a small kitchen in the corner.

The bathroom

The bathroom

The view from my living room window. See that blue thing? That, my friends, is the Adriatic Sea. Boo ya.

The view from my living room window. See that blue thing? That, my friends, is the Adriatic Sea. Boo ya.

And so it begins.